Our nation’s past year of reckoning, unrest, and lockdowns presented an unexpected societal pause to contemplate who we are and where we’re going. Consequently, the national discourse slipped into a backward-oriented conception of our nation’s position in the scheme of human history. As Americans reexamined their past, they scrutinized the rosy elementary school lessons about our national heritage.
In theory, this retrospective lens fosters a more realistic outlook on the past and challenges the history-written-by-victors narrative to yield a better course of action for the future. This mode of analysis also allows for the parsing out of present disparities and their roots in our past—and rightly so. History, indeed, shapes our experience of the present, both visible and invisible.
But this sudden orientation toward the past has its drawbacks, too. The pendulum has swung from historical idealization to historical demonization, and with it, the national dialogue has shifted dramatically. No longer do we see our history as a journey toward justice. Suddenly, our heritage is shameful.
Humanity is deeply flawed. Of course, America is no exception. Society is doomed to be forever trapped between our theoretical desire for justice and our consistent shortcomings. But, despite its historical and modern flaws, America’s orientation in this scheme of human history is crucial to a realistic understanding of its philosophical and social significance.
In its past, man has never approached such proximity to the ideal of justice. Throughout history and throughout the modern world, contemporary societies enact atrocities unimaginable to Americans. Slavery continues around the world. Women are denied their rights regularly, as is happening with the recent fall of Afghanistan.
America is far from perfect, but none of our liberties are guarantees, either historically or presently. To deny that fact is to deny America’s broader context. What makes this nation unique is not its shortcomings or its historical faults, but rather its consistent orientation toward the future.
In the course of just 250 years, our country has continually resolved shortcomings. We have exchanged our imperfections for progress, and today we all inherit the fruits of prior champions of justice. From women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement and the abolition of slavery, progress is often painful, but American history is demonstrative of a consistent drive to resolve and improve.
All societies have faults. So it’s certainly not our shortcomings that make us unique. Rather, our distinctive trait is our drive forward. America is not paralyzed by its historical injustices. Its philosophical orientation points toward a better future.
To turn our back on that mindset, to favor demonizing our past over realistically celebrating it for the story of progress that it is, has consequences. Prioritizing our mistakes over our victories not only breeds resentment, but it also stunts progress. If all we do is look back, we take our eyes off of the future.
If we accept our past as the sole and inescapable determinant of our present situation, then we export agency over our own lives, communities, and futures to actors of the past. When we only look over our shoulder, the present—and the future—feels all the more out of our control, leaving us helpless and absolving personal initiative.
That is not to say there’s no truth in this push to reexamine our past. American history is far more complex than George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. And, indeed, we must understand prior injustices to operate with the appropriate empathy for our present conditions. Patching over historical faults is no way forward.
But if history is as powerful as this theory contends, so too is our power to make history. Doing so requires initiative. It demands the prudence and wisdom to orient ourselves toward the future so as to liberate our nation and our progeny from the shortcomings of the past. The question is: What now?
This is the tried and true method that animated the American spirit of progress that has brought us to this moment. We must not let the pendulum swing too far in favor of either idealization or demonization. Instead, we must choose a well-considered middle ground to orient ourselves toward the future and reclaim our agency in achieving a better one.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.